Travel Bucket List: Provence

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Think Provence, think Lavender. Well, Provence is much more than that, but Provence is probably the place most associated with Lavender. The chief aim of my trip there June last year was to catch a glimpse of the fabled Lavender fields.

The Lavenders only start to bloom from late June, which made me rather anxious, since I may have been there too early. True enough, it was rather difficult to find blooming lavender fields. We were overjoyed when we finally found one near Saignon, one of the popular Provencal villages, which provided a nice backdrop to the lavender field.

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Lavender field at Saignon

Finding the Lavender depends on trip research (Saignon being mentioned in various references), and, unfortunately, it is even more dependent on chance. No one can tell you for sure where you can find a blooming Lavender field, since they seem to be grown in batches and each batch blooms at a different time. I imagine this is so that there can be a continuous supply of Lavender. If you’re there during the peak season, some time between early to the middle of July, it is probably easier to find blooming Lavender fields. Otherwise, be prepared to have to drive around a bit to find one.

Since the Lavender fields are privately owned, you’re not actually supposed to just walk into it without permission. Well, I did so because there was no sign stating it (at least not one in a language i could understand), and, the temptation to walk into the field to snap photos was simply irresistible. After a while, someone across the road waved at us and we quickly got off the field. I must say they were very polite.

Itinerary
There are endless possibilities when it comes to organising an itinerary for Provence. Mine is tailored to meet two main goals – to see the Lavender fields and to experience the market. Most people concur that the Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is one of the best. I think it was excellent. The location of the market, being on an island surrounded by the Sorgue river, made it very atmospheric. As the market only operates within a short span of 3 hours, from 9am to noon, you really need to get there early. I bought fruit confit from here and i must say, the French does it best.

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Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

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The Sorgue river

Besides L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, i also chose to visit St Remy de Provence (well known as the place where Picasso lived for some time, though i was not there for Picasso), Les Baux de Provence (unique town with nice castle ruin), Saignon (nice for strolling, and Lavender fields can be found here), Roussillon (famous for Ochre), Gordes (picturesque, though i only just drove past) and Abbaye de Senanque (famous for the view with Lavender fields surrounding it). I did visit a few other villages as well, but the above mentioned are places where i would recommend visiting. I also went to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to grab some wine, and i visited Avignon on a previous trip.

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Picturesque corner in Saignon

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The Abbaye de Senanque looks nice even without blooming Lavenders

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Les Baux de Provence

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Ochres of Roussillon

Accomodation
I suspect the majority of people don’t know this, that most of what Provence is famous for is in the region called the Luberon. This is where the lavender fields and villages perched on hill tops are located. Due to the popularity and limited availability, staying in the Luberon is very costly, especially when most of the accommodation available are the boutique bed and breakfast type. Yes, it’s great to stay in one of these to get a feel of what it is like to live in a Provencal house. But, if you’re on a tight budget, you can stay just outside the Luberon, since all of the Luberon are accessible within reasonably short driving distance.

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Typical Provencal estate in the Luberon

What i did was, i stayed at Avignon (city just outside the Luberon) the first night, then a B&B near Les Baux de Provence the second night (one of the cheaper ones), and another B&B at Apt (one of the largest towns in the Luberon) the third night. You will usually find cheaper accommodation in the city and larger towns than in the touristy villages. Some people may place higher priority on location over cost though, so it really depends on personal preference. In any case, don’t expect cheap accommodation in summer in this extremely popular holiday region.

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Village on a hill (can’t remember which one)

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Gordes

Food
Well, French cuisine in Provence can’t really be bad. Still, it pays to do prior research to get an idea of what kind of food you can try, and how much you might expect to pay. As with the jostling with other tourists you will expect to encounter during sightseeing, you will have the same competition for food, so it is wise to do advance booking if you want to eat at popular restaurants.

Travel Bucket List: Sintra

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Pena National Palace

This is going to be the start of a series of travel articles written in retrospect. I wanted to start with this piece on Sintra, since it is a place well worth travelling to and it was one place where i felt I wasn’t able to extract sufficient information from the internet when I did my research, so I thought I really should help fellow travelers.

Sintra has enough attractions to fill about 2 days. I spent only one day there, focusing on the 3 attractions that no one should miss – the Moorish Castle, Pena National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. The main obstacle one encounters when visiting Sintra is the slopes. While driving up to the Pena National Palace, I saw people making their way up the same road on foot. Don’t do that! You waste much precious time, while also sapping the energy that should be spent on the real sightseeing. You could at least take a bus. Another pitfall to avoid is visiting on a weekend or public holiday. I took that advice and went on a Monday, so I can’t tell you how congested it can be on a weekend or public holiday when local visitors are likely to be present also, but I suggest you don’t try to find out either.

Itinerary
Here’s the suggested one day itinerary (assuming you visit Sintra by car and you’re physically fit enough to jog 5km or 3 miles): start with the Moorish Castle, proceed to Pena National Palace, go for lunch, then finish off with Quinta da Regaleira.

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The Moorish Castle

Parking
The Moorish Castle and Pena National Palace are located along the same road (Estrada da Pena). There are limited parking spaces for either one of them. You can see the location of the parking lots using Google Street View. Many cars are parked along the road side and not in officially marked lots (which are very few in numbers). That was probably a busy day captured on Street View. If you traverse up that road in Street View, you’ll notice that the road becomes narrow once you get past the entrance to the Moorish Castle, and since this is a one way road, if you miss the last available parking lot, you will have to do a big loop to get back, so do go slow once you start seeing cars parked on the side. It probably means you should take the next available space. For the Pena National Palace, there is a parking area on the right hand side before reaching the entrance of the palace and another one on the left after the sharp bend near the entrance. The parking situation for Sintra town itself and Quinta da Regaleira are similarly difficult (so by all means, avoid weekends and public holidays). Be prepared to be a little creative in finding your parking lot!

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Pena Park

Lunch
The best bet for finding food is in Sintra town itself. As usual, i did prior research and decided on Restaurante Regional de Sintra, which was excellent. The meal hours in Portugal and Spain work very well for travellers – lunch hours are until 4pm. That was how i was able to cram two attractions in the first half of the day, with allowance for the usual disorientation when going about in unfamiliar places.

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The Waterfall Lake at Quinta da Regaleira

Strategy for covering the attractions
Buy a combo ticket at the ticket booth at the Moorish Castle (as recommended by other travelers). The combo ticket will save you some money and possibly some time at the Pena National Palace where there may be a queue for tickets since it is the most popular attraction in Sintra. It is also possible to buy the tickets online and save even more, if you’re certain of your date of visit.

Visiting the Moorish Castle is quite straight forward. Once you get into the ground, everything that can be explored is within your field of view at the entrance. If you’re not afraid of heights, take the path on the left, where you can climb to the highest point of the castle ruin. It should take you no more than an hour to cover the entire place.

The Pena National Palace ground (including the surrounding Pena Park) is huge. Once you get past the main entrance, there is a slope to climb to get to the palace. Electric trams are available (at a price of course) to take you up there if you don’t wish to do it on foot. Making your way back to the main entrance after visiting the palace isn’t as easy as it seems – i got lost trying to do so, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The route took me through Pena Park, which was breathtakingly beautiful. It was quite a walk, but every bit worthwhile. I would suggest making it a point to walk through at least parts of Pena Park despite the risk of getting lost inside the park. It is otherworldly and not quite like what you find in the gardens of British Manors or French Castles.

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A beautiful corner in Quinta da Regaleira

You may be exhausted after doing both the Moorish Castle and Pena National Park, but believe me, the mysterious beauty of Quinta da Regaleira is more than enough to keep you going. Nothing quite compares with this quaint estate. It is an adult’s playground, with many secret passages and tunnels. The Initiation Well is undoubtedly the most well known feature of the park. To be honest, you’d want to spend more time here than my one day itinerary allows. If you did proper planning and are properly equipped (i think walking poles will help a lot), you should still be able to spend a good 2 to 3 hours here.

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The Initiation Well

Nordic Norway

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The origins of the name Norway is believed to have come from words that literally mean “north way”, as anyone might have guessed, and Norway certainly lives up to that. If you look at the map, Norway wraps around Sweden and Finland towards the north, as if deliberately denying them access to the northern coast. Naturally then, the northernmost part of continental Europe lies in Norway, at Nordkapp.

This “small” country (ranks 213/241 in terms of population density), lays claim to quite a few other things besides being “north”. They have the most number of fjords, and also the longest fjord – Sognefjord, as well as the largest glacier – Jostedalsbreen, in mainland Europe (both of them also rank second in the world). More importantly, they top the list of countries for the Human Development Index and they have the 2nd highest GDP per capita in the world. They are also the third happiest country in the world (all top 4 spots are held by the Scandinavian countries). A visit to Norway gives you some insight as to how they achieved these.

They don’t work long hours. Many of the private hotel receptions don’t open until 3pm, and most shops are closed by 5pm. When they work, they generate a lot of income simply by demanding a lot in return for what is offered! However, as noted that despite being one of the most expensive places on earth, they are actually cheap considering their high income and short working hours. Their inflation rate – at around 2.4% in 2010, is low as well. You could say that their wealth has to be attributed to the ownership of rich petroleum natural resources, which is true to some extent since they are 5th in terms of production per capita. However, without good governance, natural resources are useless.

As examined in this article, economic policies were singled out as the key to Norwegian economic success. Equally important are factors such as education, equality, culture and opportunity as pointed out in the same article, which i can attest to. You’ll be surprised by the abundance of book shops, and you will also find decent libraries in every major city/town. I was taken aback by how much they trusted each other and how honest they were. I couldn’t agree more with what the article says that their culture is one which “instills that people should do their duty and deliver the goods”. They demonstrated the tremendous gain in efficiency achieved if everyone did their job proper – the end result is that everyone works fewer hours.

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They are truly blessed, with such pristine water said to contribute to long life, and wonderful landscapes of fjords, snow capped mountains and waterfalls. Every house has a view! How could they not be happy people? Deservingly i must say.

How to plan a Europe trip

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Here’s how i go about planning a Europe trip:

1. Decide places to visit
2. Check connections availability and travel time
3. Book!


Decide places to visit

  • You have to have some idea of the places that may be of interest to you to begin with. Most people probably think of the major European cities they are familiar with, and that’s not a bad way to start. Do look up wikipedia/wikitravel/tripadvisor to check if the attractions of those places are enough to warrant a visit. As a general rule, places with a higher sense of historical significance have more to offer. If you have no idea at all, look up the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, they usually don’t disappoint (however, these usually do not coincide with the major cities).
  • Plot the places you have selected on a map of Europe and see if you can join up the dots to form a logical itinerary. Scale down if you have checked and found out that the travelling time to go between the places are too long. As a general rule, i try not to spend more than 5 hours travelling per day (except on an overnight train), otherwise you might end up just getting from point to point instead of sightseeing. On a long drive, i would arrange for a short visit midway before reaching the destination.

Check connections availability and travel time

  • The modes of transport are to fly, take a train or drive. Fly when you have to cover a very long distance (it is usually cheaper and faster than taking a train that covers the same distance). Drive when it’s not expensive to rent a car (this is the preferred mode of transport because it can take you to the doorstep of any place and it is least tiring since you don’t have to carry your luggage around). Taking a train could be cheap if you book in advance, and the good thing is it takes you right into the city centre.
  • It is cheap to rent a car in Germany, which also happens to be relatively central in continental Europe, which makes Germany a good place to begin and end your trip. You can usually return the car to a different city from the one from which you picked up the car. Nothing beats having a car right up to the point before you fly home.
  • Check for flights using comparison sites such as skyscanner.net. My preference is to find out the cheapest flight using such a site, then proceed to book with the airline website directly.
  • I have never failed to find information in English on how to get around, such as finding the cheapest way to get to/from the airport, the cheapest way to utilise the metro etc. so don’t worry
  • Develop confidence in knowing how to get from point to point by studying maps beforehand. I keep screen captures of the locations of hotels, restaurants and places of interest, especially in relation to the nearest metro station on my phone. It helps even more when you use streetview to “recce” a place, to find a restaurant or car park for example.

Book

  • Do it top down – secure your flight to/from Europe first, then the connections between places on your itinerary, and lastly the hotels (the least to have to worry about)
  • A lot of places/events of interest (e.g. museums, UNESCO heritage sites) require you to book way in advance because they can take in a limited number of visitors per day, so do remember to check.
  • Hotel booking sites are aplenty. I normally go with Agoda or booking.com, occasionally venere.com (sometimes cheaper for the non-refundable option). I avoid those sites that award points or some form of credit for the bookings. Most of the time, you are allowed to cancel the booking even up to the day before you’re supposed to arrive at the hotel. Take advantage of this to secure hotel vacancies before you do further research for better alternatives, or convert the cancellable bookings into non-refundable ones (cheaper) along the way once you’re sure you’ll be there. If you have a rental car, remember to check for availability of parking at or near the hotel.

Heaven and Hell

Europeans

If you’ve come into contact with Europeans, you’d probably have a chuckle over what’s written on this plaque, found in a Swiss hotel, which is quite apt in capturing the stereotypical qualities of Europeans. Although, i would think the French are equally good lovers as the Italians and vice versa the Italians are equally good cooks as the French. Maybe there is a connection between being good as lovers and being good cooks.

It’s always fascinating to me that, within just an hour or two of cross border travel in Europe, the characteristics of the people encountered can be drastically different. The food, landscape and architecture are very different as well. Such diversity makes Europe the top holiday destination for me, always.

Gloomy Greece

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Greece Parliament building, in front of which is Syntagma square where demonstrations happen

Greeks don’t come across as being lazy people. Quite the opposite, those whom i have met were diligent and enterprising. I wonder what has gotten them into the hot soup they are in now. In fact, i wonder if those people who demonstrated against the austerity measures, recently approved by their parliament in exchange for further bailout, know exactly how those measures, or failure to obtain the bailout, were going to affect them.

On the streets of Athens, i’ve seen many people who just stand around and do nothing. Thankfully, there are as many policemen standing around to keep watch, which is critical to safeguarding the tourism industry, an important source of income they cannot afford to jeopardize.

The free copy of tourist map i obtained from the hotel bears a print that says it is funded by the EU. A little embarrassing, if you ask me, that Athens would take up sponsorship for printing its tourist map. In fact, many of the restoration work at historical sites are also supported by EU funding. I guess the EU must support them so they can at least generate some income (and not ask for more money).

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The Parthenon was one of the monuments restored with EU funding support. Marble blocks are placed back in their original position, and the particularly fragile and important sculptures are transferred to the nearby Acropolis Museum as explained in the wikipedia entry. Unfortunately, some of these sculptures were taken by the Earl of Elgin in 1801 (thus they are called the Elgin Marbles) and have been put on display in the British Museum. Or perhaps fortunately, this may have saved the sculptures from further damage. A replica or simply an empty slab is put on display for these missing pieces in the Acropolis Museum and they are captioned prominently with the acronym “BM”, meaning British Museum. This is of course deliberate action to inform visitors to the museum of their intention to bring these pieces back to where they belong. There will probably be no end to the on-going battle over the marbles.

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The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum

The Parthenon was such an inspiration that other monuments were modelled after it, including the National Monument in Edinburgh, the construction of which failed due to lack of funds.

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The National Monument, Edinburgh

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Plaque introducing the National Monument

Smart Swiss

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Plaque on display at Poschiavo train station showing the UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscape

Getting the UNESCO World Heritage Site status is a sure way of getting an endless stream of profit. The Swiss are quick to capitalize on this, getting their first 3 in 1983 and having a total of 10 as of 2009, which is amazing, given the small area of land that is Switzerland. One of them, which i visited, was the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscape.

With the award of the World Heritage Site status, the Bernina Express, developed and marketed by the Rhaetian Railway, gains a lot of credit as being the ride to go for. Actually, the only difference between the Bernina Express and the normal trains that travel the same route is that the Bernina Express has a panoramic roof. For this, the fare premium (for travelling the full length of the Bernina line) is a whopping 168%! A lot of travellers probably get the wrong impression that it is the Bernina Express that was awarded the World Heritage Site status when in actual fact it is the route and the landscape.

Quite unfortunately, the day i took the train turned out to be a rainy day, and visibility was very low. My only consolation was that i took the cheaper train. Anyway, somehow, the scenery outside while crossing the Bernina Pass didn’t look as good as i thought it would be. I imagine it would look better in winter, when everything is covered with snow (as shown in their publicity photos).

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Passengers of the Bernina Express on a rainy day. Notice that the normal train window is already quite big and can be lowered (good for photo taking) but the Panoramic window of the Bernina Express cannot be lowered!

Just about everyone knows Switzerland has a high standard of living. I think this is attributed to the many good characteristics Swiss people have. They are said to be thrifty, industrious, planning ahead, serious, sincere, fair, social, optimistic. I would like to add – integrity, the basis of any progress. For maintaining such wonderful virtues and thereby achieving the success they have today, I’d say the Swiss are pretty smart people.

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Billboard giving directions to 2 different restaurants: co-benefit rather than compete only

Ideal Italy

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View of Tuscany near San Gimignano

Italy is placed at the 10th spot of the best places to live in the world according to one ranking. I couldn’t have agreed more to what they had to say about Italy:

Rome, Venice, and Florence”¦ mountains reflected in sapphire lakes”¦ golden beaches and hill towns cobbled with secrets. Sunflowers, vineyards, and opera. And the best espresso, pizza, and ice cream you’ll ever taste.

Italy continues to hold the trophy of having the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with 47 as of 2011. The total number of Michelin starred restaurants in Italy is second only to France in Europe. Italy is also among the top wine producing and exporting countries. Not forgetting also, Italy makes world renowned leather goods and crafts that are superior in quality and style.

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Italians take it easy. They are never in a hurry with their meals. You will have to be patient while waiting to be served in a restaurant, otherwise it could possibly result in unhappiness. They are also naturally comical/dramatic people, which adds to the zest in life.

If you ask me, the Italians have it all.. heritage, landscape, art, music, food, wine, coffee, fashion and the list goes on..

Drinking Deutschland

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Hofbräuhaus original and dark beer in 1L glasses

Not to be missed while in Munich – beer, food and music from Hofbräuhaus. Beer is served by the litre, and as much as that seems to be, you will be amazed at how easy it is to down the drink (in voracious gulps). For a moment it would seem as if your bladder had an expanded capacity.

Bavaria (the region in Germany where Munich is located) lays claim to be having the world’s oldest still-operating brewery, it’s no wonder they make great tasting beer (ok, i have to admit at this point that i love beer and wine). Beer is such an important part of German tradition that they actually make beer intended to be a kid’s first beer. Not surprisingly, the legal drinking age in Germany is among the lowest.

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With the consumption of alcoholic beverages being so commonplace, it inevitably leads to the problem of alcoholism. I was very surprised to find out, during my visit to the Skansen Museum in Stockholm, that Sweden almost banned alcohol in a referendum held in 1922 (Norway and Finland actually implemented such prohibition). The Swedish Temperance Movement, formed to discourage alcohol consumption, was popular then and is still active to this day. Check out the photos below – the IOGT (Swedish Temperance Movement) must have been quite rich to be able to build such a large hall, which was also used for performances and entertainment.

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Brofästet Temperance Hall, Skansen Museum

Moderation is the word.

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